tying the knot

I went to a wedding yesterday, by no means my first in China, but maybe the first time where I had some idea about what was going on.  I ‘m not referring to the various ceremonies and rituals specific to the culture and which anyone can look up on wiki or some other website about China, but rather the social aspects and pressures that accompany this kind of event.

Consider the corresponding Christian event in the West.  Often (but not exclusively) man pops question to woman; if she accepts, planning gets underway for the big day some months down the line.

The night before Groom goes to Stag night usually involving alcohol and strippers.  Bride has Hen night involving alcohol and strippers.  The next day, everyone is pretty much sobered up when expensive vintage car picks bride and whoever happens to be ‘giving her away’ and transports them to ground zero.  Site is typically (but again, not always) in a church, sometimes the first time bride or groom has ever set foot inside a place of worship.  Afterwards, everyone piles back into the cars and heads off to the wedding reception.  Drinkies, food, speeches, dancing.  At the end of the evening, everyone sees bride and groom off on their honeymoon.  It’s kind of fun, you get to see friends or family you probably haven’t seen for years and get to meet some new people.  Usually someone does something stupid like walk into a glass door or sets fire to something.

In China, it’s completely different.  Bride and Groom tie the knot at a government office some time previously.  Some time later they invite everyone to dinner.  2 hours later everyone goes home.  That’s it.  In yesterday’s wedding they got married two months ago and seem to have spent the rest of the time planning for the dinner.  In the past, it was even more complicated because it was also necessary to get approval from your company boss, which seemed open to all kinds of abuse.

The dinner is held at some posh restaurant where, rain or shine, Bride and Groom stand at the entrance to greet guests.  This is one of the most important parts of the whole gig.  It’s also one of the hardest to explain because it has to do with something that can’t really be translated into English, even though it’s translated as ‘face’.  It’s particularly difficult for Brits to understand because as a race I don’t think we are easily embarrassed.

For example, a friend in Dallas told me about how, at a Maverick’s basketball game, he was suddenly taken with a bout of tummy trouble and had to make a dash for the toilet.  He didn’t make it, he even didn’t reach the end of the row and had to squeeze his way past the last three seats with shit stained trousers – apparently it was starting to work its way up and over the top.  And he still had to walk to the bathroom and then out to the car park and drive home.  I’m not providing such details just to be gross, but to demonstrate how he had just lost face.

Of course, this guy was the subject of ridicule for the next couple of weeks, gifts of diapers and anti-diarrhea medication on the desk and other predictable gags.  But also, there was a certain sympathy as people would relate their worst experience.

In China, the reaction is different.  This incident would remain with this guy for the rest of his life.  If he was courting a girl, it would be brought up “you should think twice about marrying him.  Shit his pants at a basketball game if you can believe it.  He’ll probably embarrass you and do the very same thing when you are entertaining friends”.  And Chinese are similarly mortified by actions we would consider far more trivial.  For example, a patient in the hospital felt unable to leave her abusive boyfriend because she had ‘been’ with him and couldn’t handle what her friends would think if she left him and took up with another bloke.

At the other extreme is gaining face.  This is what standing at the front door of the restaurant is all about.  All your friends will come to see you in a position of importance as they enter the restaurant.  To a westerner it seems odd, but that’s the way they do it.

During the wedding dinner another part of gaining face is for the bride and groom to go from table to table and drink a toast with their guests.  Sounds reasonable enough, but unfortunately some guests see this as an opportunity to haze the newly weds by making them drink multiple shots of high octane Chinese wine.  Again, it’s all is part of the culture; I spend most official dinners offending colleagues by refusing to drink to excess.  As a foreigner, I can sort of get away with it, but having been here so long I feel more uncomfortable refusing their advances.

For the newly weds it’s impossible to refuse when the guests are their elders and I find it a little depressing to watch.  If a senior colleague from work says ‘drink’ you have to drink.  And if they say ‘have another one’ it goes straight down the hatch.  I counted ten shots of strong liquor at our table and the groom looked like he hated every minute of it.  And the more tables there are, the longer the abuse they have to endure.

What I realized from yesterday evening’s hazing efforts was that what I was witnessing was a clash of old and new cultures.  On the one side, standing around my table with glasses raised, was the old school.  With a job and house for life and few responsibilities on the work front they can manage a more relaxed attitude to everything.  On the other, standing a little less steadily, was the Bride and Groom, work and roof over their head far from guaranteed, with the pressure to succeed instilled at birth by their family, they are too busy trying to get their life together to waste time getting shitfaced.

Many younger people in China are happy just watching a movie while drinking something non-alcoholic and yet their evening’s entertainment was effectively ruined by the pissheads at tables 1, 2, 4, 5, 8 & 10.  When I made my excuses and left early, the Groom hadn’t even finished but unlike the people at my table, at least he could still stand.  But at least they could sleep it off in the office the next morning.

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